PS Audio PerfectWave Disc Transport
- Written by Jason Victor Serinus
- Published on 11 August 2011
I was in a bind. CD and product reviews were due at multiple publications, and my Theta Carmen II transport's drive mechanism had failed. I may have bought the used unit directly from Theta Digital's founder and former owner, Neil Sinclair, but that couldn't change the fact that the Carmen II's defective drive was long out of production. With no spare parts available in at Theta's Southern California headquarters, I was in trouble.
Immediately, PS Audio's Paul McGowan came to mind. For many months, PS Audio's monthly newsletter – recently discontinued in favor of a new publication, PS Tracks – had been proclaiming the arrival of the PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport and Perfect Wave DAC. Since Paul and I had gotten to know each other over the years, as I've reviewed several of the company's products and blogged their rooms at quite a number of shows, I felt I could ask a favor.
Within days, a life raft in the form of a demo PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport (PWT) had arrived. Although in some respects a very different animal than other CD/CD-R transports, I found set-up and play extremely simple. I was especially delighted by the presence of an AES/EBU digital output, since the digital cable that I connect to my Theta Gen. 8, Series II DAC is a Nordost Odin AES/EBU.
Well over a year later, the PS Audio remains my reference transport. Buying it wasn't simply a matter of convenience or industry discount; the Perfect Wave Transport sounds so much better than my old Carmen II Transport (which I'll happily sell to anyone who needs the parts), and is far more geared to 21st century technologies, that it has ushered in an entirely new era of music listening at Casa Bellecci-Serinus.
- Design: Optical Disc (CD) Transport and Memory Player with 64 MB of RAM
- Codecs: CD, WAV, 24/88, 24/96, 24/192 on DVD-A
- Can Display Cover Art
- Outputs: S/PIDF RCA and Toslink, AES/EBU, and I2S through HDMI
- Sample Rate Output 24/192 Maximum (32 Bit Capability When Applicable)
- Dimensions: 3.75"H x 14"D x 17"W
- Weight: 25 Pounds
- MSRP: $2,995 USA
- PS Audio
The PWT is unique among transports in that it is a memory player designed to read both redbook CDs and DVDs encoded with high-resolution audio. In some respects, it takes the place of a computer, yet is devoid of computer parts.
The PWT first reads everything on the optical disc you insert into its drive, then transfers it to an internal PS Audio Digital Lens with 64mB memory. The unit then outputs a digital signal from the Digital Lens' memory. PS Audio claims that this unique arrangement circumvents many of the errors and most of jitter introduced by conventionally designed transports. It also purportedly elevates playback to the level achieved by a computer hard drive, and manages to do so without introducing computer-related noise.
Although the PWT is a true memory player, its memory is not that large. If a disc is ejected while it is playing and the transport's "Stop" function is not engaged, PS Audio says that the music will continue to play up for to several minutes, until the 64mB memory is totally discharged. It has never played that long for me, perhaps because I often listen to complex compositions that demand a lot of memory. That's just a guess. Regardless, the process of ejecting a disc and holding it in your hand while it continues to play is a jaw-dropper for first-time visitors.
The unit's digital outputs include RCA, AES/EBU, Toslink optical, and a proprietary I2S / HDMI cable interface. The latter is designed to connect to PS Audio's PerfectWave DAC using PS Audio's special dedicated I2S / HDMI cable. PS Audio claims that I2S / HDMI eliminates all jitter, and potentially delivers the best sound. More on that later.
Unfortunately, the unit lacks the most stable S/PIDF connection, 75 ohm BNC. Note that Toslink output is limited to 24/96, while all other outputs transmit signals up to 24/192.
The Perfect Wave Transport and its multi-purpose remote control (designed to simultaneously control PS Audio's Perfect Wave DAC) have most of the usual functions: play, pause, stop, repeat track, repeat CD, fast forward, rapid retreat, next track, previous track. What it lacks is a "program" function. If you, like me, often wish to play selected tracks in an unusual sequence, you have to remain alert and change tracks by remote control.
The unit also has an unusually large display that enables you to read tracks numbers from, in my case, over 11 feet away. IMHO, this is essential to listening ease and comfort. If you prefer to dim the screen, there is a "DIM" button on the remote control to do just that. What I have been unable to do is turn off the dimming function and restore the display to full brightness without turning off the unit entirely and starting from scratch. At least I don't lose my programming sequence.
The power cord is removable – a major boon to those of us who know what a difference a change of power cord makes. The two 5x20mm 1 Amp Slow Blow fuses (Type T) are also easily replaced, should you wish to use audiophile grade fuses to achieve even better sound.
The PWT is network capable, and can download cover art and song titles from the internet to its large front panel touch screen. The information is stored on PS Audio's GlobalNetTM servers and stored on SD card memory. An internet connection, either via a network enabled Ethernet cable or a wireless Ethernet bridge connected to a router, is required.
Since everything you need to know about setting up the PWT is easily accessible on the PS Audio website, I shall dispense with parroting it here.
I made several choices when setting up the PWT. The first was to not risk introducing noise into the unit by taking advantage of the internet connectivity option. I've got plenty of net connectivity via the computers in my house. Besides, I really don't want to go cross-eyed trying to make out cover art or track listings from across the room, especially when I have the CD jacket right now next to me.
I also replaced all internal fuses with aftermarket fuses from HIFi-Tuning, purchased through The Cable Company. When I bought my fuses, the best grade available was the SilverStar. I have yet to try HiFi-Tuning's newer Supreme level, which retail for $50 and higher per fuse. From what I'm told, my system will sound even more transparent.
My cabling is entirely Nordost Odin. I know -- the total cost of my power cables, speaker cables, and interconnects greatly exceeds the list price of the PWT. In fact, the cables cost far more than all my components combined. If that upsets you, please don't even consider listening to Nordost Odin. You might risk hearing how good it sounds. I know veteran dealers who have auditioned new equipment using other power cables, and then listened again with Nordost Odin. The verdict: the sound is so much better with Odin, you would think you were listening to different components. Hence, I use Odin to hear the ultimate that my equipment can deliver.
For a while, I also had the PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC (PWD) on hand. Though I tried PS Audio's best I2S / HDMI link ($500) between the PWT and PWD, I found the sound through my Nordost Odin AES/EBU cable more vivid and extended. Nor did I hear any loss of accuracy or detail by forgoing the I2S option. Hence, I stuck with my Nordost AES/EBU digital interconnect, both with the PWD, and currently with my Theta Gen. 8 Series II DAC (upgraded to 24/192 capability).
I also have also found that aftermarket equipment supports make a huge difference in the sound of the PWT (or any component, for that matter). Recently, after living with the PWT for a year, I was gifted with six Magico QPODS ($1700/four). When I replaced the supports I had long used under the PWT with the QPODS, I was astounded to discover the bass line at the start of Ivan Fischer's Mahler's Symphony No. 2, a DSD-native hybrid SACD from Channel Classics, grow in strength and solidity. What before had only been hinted at in muffled, unfocused tones now emerged as a fully cogent bass line with discernible pitches and far more weight. The QPODS have brought the sound of my system one major step closer to the sound of live music.
Perhaps the QPODS would make less of an improvement if my rack were anything other than an old MDF-shelved Michael Green UltraRack that I acquired used in the last century. I'm sure it's better than nothing, but ultra it is not. Nonetheless, it's what I've got until I win the lottery. I'm a mere six numbers away from Audiophile Nirvana.
Using the UltraRack, I've tried feet from four other companies, all well known and respected. All demonstrably reduce vibration, and some do a wonderful job with the air around instruments, but none has had anywhere near the same effect as the QPODS. The only feet that I own that I have not tried under my transport and DAC are the 16 Stillpoints Ultra SS (Stainless Steel) supports that make a major difference to the sound of my Eficion F300 loudspeakers (review forthcoming). I'd love to compare the Stillpoints to the QPODS, but I could only do by removing the Stillpoints from my speakers, which would skew my reference. Someday…
Unless you are new to the high-end, I'm certain you've read enough "With the [piece of gear under review] in place, I heard so much more deep bass on the classic recording of Brubeck's Take 5 that my jaw dropped" examples to tempt you to never again read audio reviews. I'm not going to tempt you further in that direction.
I have already noted how much more "there there" there was when I replaced my old transport with the PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport. On every level - including range extension, depth of color, solidity on the low end, richness in the middle, clarity and seemingly limitless extension, soundstage size and focus, and transparency - every one of my beloved recordings sounded clearer, fuller, and more real. My only problem is with my Arleen Auger disc of Love Songs on Delos, which for some reason the PWT refuses to read. The only other disc that has given me difficulty is one of chamber music by Christopher Rouse. I have no explanation for why, out of the well over 10,000 CDs in my collection, the PWT will not play these two.
Besides noting the vast improvement over the sound of the Theta Carmen II and another transport modified by Alex Peychev, the only other transport comparison I performed was with a heavily modified Oppo BDP-93. Despite all its modifications, I found the upgraded Oppo's sound edgy and off-putting. I cannot make any definitive statements about that unit, however, because I was unable to use my reference Nordost Odin AES/EBU digital cable on its RCA output. Instead, I used a Nordost Odin BNC digital cable outfitted with an RCA-to-BNC adapter. Although some have claimed that the adapter is neutral, I am not certain.
What I am sure of is the crucial importance of the transport to the sound of the audio chain. For those of us who use stand-alone DACs, the choice of transport is critical. If you're using an old Sony or whatever as your transport, you owe it to yourself to try the PWT. The better your equipment and cables, and the more detailed your system, the more you will be able to hear the vast difference in sound between transports.
After a year's time, a fellow audiophile told me that Kyle Takenawa's Reference Audio Mods had made a major improvement to the sound of his system. When I checked out the company's website, and saw the proposed mods for the Perfect Wave Transport, what I read made sense to me. PS Audio holds its products to a certain price point. Why wouldn't a better clock and improved power supply, both of which would have raised the list price of the PWT considerably had they come with the stock unit, make an improvement in the sound?
When I was able to reach Kyle to discuss what would be involved, he explained that he had recently changed his approach to modifying the PWT. After any number of listening tests, he had concluded that the greatest improvement in sound came from what, on his website, is currently listed as the "PWT Level 1 Modifications." The changes include Audiocom's Superclock 4-S and PSU, and Rubycon ZL/ZLG capacitors.
Shortly before I had expected to hold an open house for members of the Bay Area Audiophile Society, Kyle completed his work. He was quite ill with the flu at the time, and really pushed himself to finish the mod in time and ship the unit to me. Although the upgraded power supply loosened a bit in transit, and the man who tightened it said the soldering work was sloppy, I am certain that Kyle's work would have been more meticulous had he not been suffering from a high fever.
What I do know is that the unit has performed problem-free for a good nine months. My only quibble is a very slight "tick" that I hear when the PWT advances between tracks.
Because my system underwent multiple changes at the same time, including an unexpected change of amplifiers, I had a very short window in which to assess the effects of the mod. I immediately became aware of an increase in bass response, and an added and more natural weight to instruments and voices. When a bass drum was thwacked, for example, the sound was not only more pronounced and defined, but also heavier, as if a lot more air was being moved. To me, such changes are of major significance.
Perhaps the ultimate endorsement of Kyle's Level 1mod is that when I switched back and forth between my modified PWT and my next to current Macbook Pro (outfitted with an Intel i7 chip, 8 GB RAM, and solid-state drive; connected to the Theta DAC/preamp via a Nordost USB cable, Wavelength's asynchronous Wavelink, and a Nordost Odin BNC digital cable; and using Amarra 2.1 as the music player, the sound was virtually the same. With Amarra's latest release, 2.2, upping the ante, and pushing the computer's sound ahead one notch, I am considering returning the PWT to Kyle for his latest "PWT Statement Modifications."
One of the reasons I have stalled so long on reviewing this transport, which was first released in 2009, is that I was unable to test one of its key features: the ability to play DVDs encoded with 176.4/24 or 192/24 material from Reference Recordings, MA Recordings, and Chesky. Now that the receiver chip in the Theta Gen. 8, Series II DAC has been upgraded to full 192 kbps capability, and I can hear what's on these hi-res DVDs, I can attest to the incredible advantage the PS Audio offers over more conventional transports.
There is simply no comparison between the sound of a conventional CD and the sound of one of these company's hi-res masters. There is simply more information on the disc. Everything sounds so much larger, fuller, richer-sounding, and more three dimensional – more realistic – that it's hard to go back to CD when there is a hi-res alternative. No wonder Reference Recordings' 176.4/24 HRx DVDs, and hi-res downloads from HDTracks, Linn, 2L, Cedille, Naim, and other labels have become so popular.
PS Audio's Perfect Wave Transport is a CD/DVD transport for the 21st century. Capable of delivering stellar sound from both redbook and hi-res encoded mediums, and equipped with an internet-augmented display, it's the finest transport I've ever heard in my reference system. And it is in my system. I bought the review sample.